Suspended sentences

March 8, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One. Stanley Fish; $22.99 cloth 978-0-06-184054-8, 166 pp., Harper.

One of my favourite English-language sentences appears in Steven Pinker’s book The Language Instinct. The sentence, which was created by Pinker’s student, Annie Senghas, is a syntactical marvel, at first utterly confounding, but perfectly structured and absolutely, 100% grammatically correct. The sentence reads as follows:

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

On a first (and even second, third, or fourth) reading, that sentence seems like complete gibberish, a nonsense mantra repeating a single word eight times in succession. Only when one takes a step back and considers the various parts of speech the word “buffalo” can stand in for does the sentence’s meaning begin to come clear. Consider that “buffalo” can be a noun, the name of a city, or a verb. Then consider that the difficulty in Senghas’s sentence arises from the elision of articles and conjunctions that might serve as guides in breaking the sentence down into its syntactical components. Pinker explains it this way:

American bison are called buffalo. A kind of bison that comes from Buffalo, New York, could be called a Buffalo buffalo. Recall that there is a verb to buffalo that means “to overwhelm, to intimidate.” Imagine that New York State bison intimidate one another: (The) Buffalo buffalo (that) Buffalo buffalo (often) buffalo (in turn) buffalo (other) Buffalo buffalo.

Put that way, the sentence makes perfect sense, but is a lot less interesting. Senghas’s unadulterated string of words is a thing of beauty, a sentence to elicit joy and wonder in those for whom language and its structures are endlessly fascinating.

This category should include all writers, since writers employ sentences the way carpenters employ cords of wood. It never ceases to amaze me when a writer confesses to an indifference toward the building blocks of language: “Oh, I don’t really pay attention to the details of my sentences: I’m a big-picture person. I let my editor handle the small stuff.” Writers of this stripe, with their heads in the clouds, always pondering the grand questions of life without giving a second thought to how those questions get expressed in prose, strike me as dilettantes at best, for they lack a basic understanding of their craft.

This is what Annie Dillard was getting at in an anecdote in her book The Writing Life:

A well-known writer got collared by a university student who asked, “Do you think I could be a writer?”

“Well,” the writer said, “I don’t know. … Do you like sentences?”

The writer could see the student’s amazement. Sentences? Do I like sentences? I am twenty years old and do I like sentences? If he had liked sentences, of course, he could begin, like a joyful painter I knew. I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, “I liked the smell of paint.”

Stanley Fish makes reference to Dillard’s anecdote at the opening of his slim new volume, How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One. Fish is a self-described member of “the tribe of sentence watchers” – an aficionado and devotee of the pleasure a well-crafted sentence can offer, and a lover of the various ways in which good sentences can convey information, emotion, and meaning. He focuses on sentences rather than words because individual words set alongside one another are meaningless until they are organized into a rational and comprehensible sequence. The organizational ability of sentences, Fish avers, contains their promise and potential:

[Sentences] promise nothing less than lessons and practice in the organization of the world. That is what language does: organize the world into manageable, and in some sense artificial, units that can then be inhabited and manipulated. If you can write a sentence in which actors, actions, and objects are related to one another in time, space, mood, desires, fears, causes, and effects, and if your specification of those relationships is delineated with a precision that communicates itself to your intended reader, you can, by extrapolation and expansion, write anything: a paragraph, an argument, an essay, a treatise, a novel.

This is a very functional assessment of what sentences do, focusing on logic, comprehensibility, and communicative efficacy rather than aesthetic or linguistic pleasure. Fish might take great joy in Senghas’s buffalo sentence, but it is not the kind of thing he is interested in here, being on one level a linguistic stunt: the delight it offers will likely be greater to linguists and grammarians than a general reader. By contrast, Fish’s purpose in this volume is practical and utilitarian: to illustrate the building blocks of sentences in such a way that readers will be able to break them down into their component parts and replicate them in their own writing.

To this end, Fish includes an analysis of hypotactic sentences (those composed by subordinating clauses and phrases) and paratactic sentences (those composed by an accretion of clauses joined by “and,” “but,” or other co-ordinating conjunctions). These he calls (rather inelegantly) the “subordinating style” and the “additive style,” and he provides examples of each for the purpose of demonstrating how, by copying the way each sentence is constructed, writers can achieve similar effects. Sentence length, Fish suggests, is immaterial: once a writer has mastered the building blocks, it is simply a matter of adding clauses to create lengthier, more complex sentences.

Fish suggests analyzing form in the absence of content, for it is the form of a sentence that determines its utility; the content can be anything at all. “It doesn’t matter what the sentences you practice with say; it doesn’t matter what their content is,” Fish writes. “In fact, the less interesting the sentences are in their own right the more useful they are as vehicles of instruction, because, as you work with them, you will not be tempted to focus on their content and you will be able to pay attention to the structural relationships that make content – any content – possible.” As a result, the examples Fish chooses (and they are plentiful) are exploited for their usefulness as teaching tools rather than their aesthetic interest. In illustrating the subordinating style, for example, Fish employs what he admits is a “modest” example from Henry James’s short story “The Real Thing”:

When the porter’s wife (she used to answer the house-bell), announced “A gentleman – with a lady, sir,” I had, as I often had in those days, for the wish was father to the thought, an immediate vision of sirens.

Fish points out the way the event described in this sentence is couched in layers of perception, how the bare bones of the sentence – subject, verb, object – are draped with subordinating clauses that position the event in time and reflect on their importance to the sentence’s abiding consciousness (the subject, or “I,” of the sentence). Stripped of its finery, the sentence reads, “I had a vision.” Everything else, Fish demonstrates, serves to position this vision in time (it is “an immediate vision” that occurs to the speaker after the porter’s wife makes her announcement), and to provide this vision with “a history and a pedigree.”

These are all formal considerations that have nothing to do with the content of the sentence; likewise, they have little to do with the grammar of the sentence. Early on in his book, Fish disavows grammatical concerns on the basis that this kind of knowledge, “divorced from what it is supposed to be knowledge of, yields only the illusion of understanding.” It is possible, Fish supposes, to rhyme off the eight parts of speech (noun, pronoun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition, conjunction, and interjection) without an understanding of what function these parts of speech play in a sentence. He goes on to suggest that a guide such as Strunk and White’s classic The Elements of Style is not terribly helpful because it assumes a level of technical knowledge that not all its readers will possess.

This repudiation of technical matters is an extension of the whole language approach to literacy, which assumes that comprehension will arise organically, as if by osmosis. But Fish ignores the havoc that ignorance of such technical concerns can wreak on even a simple sentence. It is all well and good to be able to differentiate hypotaxis from parataxis, but unless a certain level of technical understanding has been reached, a reader (to say nothing of a writer) will be unable to comprehend the difference between a sentence that reads “Aim for the heart, surgeons” and one that reads “Aim for the heart surgeons.” Simply plugging clauses into a sentence with no regard for how they interact with one another is a recipe for disaster, as a pair of sentences from Douglas Coupland’s novel JPod attest: “One of JPod’s quirks is an air intake duct in front of which you can puff away on anything. Hell, you could let off an Exocet missile, and it’d suck everything up and away in a jiffy.” The “it” in the second sentence is presumably meant to refer to the air intake duct, although the way the sentence is constructed, it actually refers to the Exocet missile.

This brings up another issue that Fish elides in his book: sentences may be individual linguistic marvels, but they only accrue meaning in combination. Analyzing the way first sentences “lean forward” toward the text they are introducing is one thing, but doing so in isolation can lead to problems. For example, Fish points to the “quiet yet pregnant first sentence” from Agatha Christie’s novel Nemesis:

In the afternoon it was the custom of Miss Jane Marple to unfold her second newspaper.

“This sentence seems simple,” Fish writes, “but in fact it communicates a surprising amount of information (and more) in its brief space.” One of the things it communicates, Fish would have us believe, is “that Jane Marple will find something in her second newspaper of the day and that, whatever it is, she will follow through on it.” This is true only if one has read on in Christie’s novel. The opening sentence on its own suggests nothing of the sort. Imagine a second sentence that read, “On this particular afternoon, however, her custom was cut short by a figure creeping up behind her and burying an axe in her head.” It would be safe to say that such a sentence would preclude the notion that Miss Marple would proceed to find something in the paper and act on it. Sentences, even great ones, do not exist in a vacuum.

“Do you think I could be a writer?” the university student asks in Dillard’s anecdote. “Do you like sentences?” the writer replies. Liking sentences is essential, but it isn’t sufficient, as Fish’s small book demonstrates. Early on, Fish compares great sentences to sports highlights: “you know, the five greatest dunks, or the ten greatest catches, or the fifteen greatest touchdown runbacks.” On one level, How to Write a Sentence reads like a literary highlight reel. Football coaches will spend hours drilling their players on individual plays and every so often one of them results in a spectacular buttonhook or forward pass. But in the end, it’s a series of plays in combination that determines who wins the game.

Attention writers! CBC Literary Awards wants a word with you

September 14, 2010 by · 2 Comments 

The CBC Literary Awards, an annual competition celebrating original, unpublished writing in both official languages, is looking for submissions for its 2010 edition. There are three categories – fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction – and the prizes are not insubstantial: $6,000 for the winning entry in each category, $4,000 for the runner-up, plus publication in Air Canada’s enRoute magazine and on the CBC’s website. The deadline for this year’s submissions is November 1, 2010.

As with the Ceeb’s annual Canada Reads competition, they are doing yeoman’s work promoting their literary awards online, with a website where aspirants can submit their material and a Facebook group. In addition to information about the submission process, the CBC website also includes writing tips, previous winners’ work, and other features, including an interview with former juror Heather O’Neill, who provides some insight into her criteria for judging the submitted material:

O’Neill admits that the stories’ brevity often determined how she evaluated the writing. “Because of the word count,” she explains, “you’re almost looking for the style of the writer because there isn’t time for story development. You’re looking for a new voice that’s talking to you, so you weed out the derivative stuff right away.”  In terms of personal criteria, O’Neill finds it difficult to pinpoint exactly what grabs her in a story. She takes a stab at it anyway. “It’s funny,” she says, “because you look for something that doesn’t seem laboured, but to develop that, it’s very laboured. I guess I look for something lovely and light, with humour … I like writing that’s funny and sad, that hides the author.”

O’Neill also emphasizes the importance of strong beginnings. “The opening of your story is like a first date,” she says, suggesting that writers need to charm the jurors from the outset.

So dust off those laptops and get writing; the deadline for submissions is less than two months away.

R.I.P. Frank Kermode

August 18, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

One of the greatest and most influential critics ever to grace the stage of English Literature, Frank Kermode has died at the age of 90. From the Guardian:

Prominent in literary criticism since the 1950s, Kermode held “virtually every endowed chair worth having in the British Isles,” according to his former colleague John Sutherland, from King Edward VII professor of English literature at Cambridge to Lord Northcliffe professor of modern English literature at University College London and professor of poetry at Harvard, along with honorary doctorates from universities around the world. He was knighted in 1991.

A renowned Shakespearean, publishing Shakespeare’s Language in 2001, Kermode’s books range from works on Spenser and Donne and the memoir Not Entitled to last year’s Concerning E.M. Forster.

Equally conversant with the work of Shakespeare and Wallace Stevens, Kermode’s 2006 book The Sense of an Ending has become an essential text for students of literary criticism, and literature itself.

It is the constant presence of more or less subtle varieties of apocalyptism that makes possible the repetitive claims for uniqueness and privilege in modernist theorising about the arts. So far as I can see these claims are unjustified. The price to be paid for old-style talk about “evolving sensibility” is new-style talk about “mutation.” It is only rarely that one can say there is nothing to worry about, but in this limited respect there appears not to be. Mr. Fiedler professes alarm at the prospect of being a stranded humanist, wandering among unreadable books in a totally new world. But when sensibility had evolved that far there will be no language and no concept of form, so no books. Its possessors will all be idiots. However, it will take more than jokes, dice, random shuffling, and smoking pot to achieve this, and in fact very few people seem to be trying. Neo-modernists have examined in many ways (many more than I have talked about), various implications of traditional modernism. As a consequence, we have, not unusually, some good things, many trivial things, many jokes, much nonsense. Among other things they enable us to see more clearly that certain aspects of earlier modernism really were so revolutionary that we ought not to expect – even with everything so speeded up – to have the pains and pleasures of another comparable movement quite so soon. And by exaggerating and drawing, the neo-modernist does help us to understand rather better what the Modern now is, and has been during this century.

– “Objects, Jokes, and Art,” 1966

A matter of taste: revivifying CanLit criticism

July 5, 2010 by · 8 Comments 

Let’s begin with a premise that presumably we can all agree upon: literary criticism in Canada is struggling. Book review sections in our national press grow ever thinner, or disappear altogether; reviews get ever shorter, as a baleful capitulation to our attention-deficit culture; insult and invective stand in for reasoned argument; and the intellectual wattage of our critical discourse becomes dimmer and dimmer. The Internet allows anyone with an opinion on literary works – no matter how ill informed or poorly elucidated that opinion might be – the means by which to disseminate it. Book chat gets elevated to the status of critical thought. And enthusiastic amateurs are lauded while educated connoisseurs are pilloried as anti-democratic elitists. In short, Canadian literary criticism is withering on the vine.

This should be very bad news for anyone who takes literary culture at all seriously. Not because writers depend on literary critics to do their job; if critics were to vanish from the face of the earth tomorrow (as any number of writers doubtless wish they would) literature would not disappear along with them. On the contrary: writers would continue to write, books would continue to get published, and readers would continue to read them. However, an integral part of the literary ecology would have been lost. Critical dialogue is essential if a literary culture is to remain vibrant, for it is precisely this dialogue that emboldens innovation and progress, challenges complacency, and helps situate individual works in the context of literary tradition and history. Literary culture thrives alongside an incisive and provocative critical culture. The lack of a thriving critical culture in this country is arguably one reason why so much CanLit appears sclerotic and uninspired compared to the literature of other countries – notably Britain and America – that have more vigorous critical communities.

What factors might account for our current state of affairs?

In his influential 1968 volume Image Music Text Roland Barthes famously declared the death of the author. The author, Barthes insisted, had no claim to privilege over a text, and asserting authorial intention was an error that impinged upon the multiplicity of implications inherent in language itself. The death of the author, Barthes argued, allowed for the birth of the reader. In this sense, Barthes prefigured the democratization of critical response that the Internet unleashed. But as Rónán McDonald points out, what gets lost in the transaction is the authority to speak from a position of knowledge and expertise. The death of the author is coeval with the death of the critic, and the resultant flattening of literary discourse has a (perhaps counterintuitive) deleterious effect on the reader:

For all the supposed emancipation implicit in the pronouncement “we’re all critics now,” the loss of critical authority, of knowledgeable arbiters with some influence on public attention, actually diminishes the agency of choice of the reader. It plays into the hands of the monopolies who pedal [sic] fewer and fewer choices and whose primary interest is always the bottom line. What could be better suited to a ravenous consumer society, thriving on depthless and instant gratifications, than an ethos where judgements of cultural quality are down to everyone’s individual tastes and opinions? Like those phone-in polls so beloved of television and radio, this supposed “people power” decks out banality and uniformity in the guise of democracy and improvement.

The “wisdom of crowds” that is so valorized online is a mechanism for the promotion of herd instinct that undermines the critical impulse rather than encouraging it. As authoritative critical voices disappear, they are replaced by a populist mentality that cleaves in an unthinking way to trends and to what is being sold as the new big thing. Such a mentality is anti-intellectual and anti-critical at its core. McDonald points out that the word critic derives from the Greek word kritos, meaning “a judge.” The implication, McDonald argues, is that for criticism to have a broad public value, it must be evaluative. But on what should evaluative criticism be based? Surely not “everyone’s individual tastes and opinions”?

To say that a critic must be possessed of good taste is a highly contentious statement, for the obvious question arises: Who determines what qualifies as “good taste”? Is one person’s taste not as valid as anyone else’s? To answer in the negative is to invite accusations of elitism, but it is difficult to ignore the irrefutable truth that a lifetime devoted to reading deeply and widely, to studying the history of literature and literary theory, will have the effect of refining a person’s taste. No one who has been properly exposed to the sublimity of Henry James’s finely turned sentences can possibly read the plodding and clanging prose of James Patterson and consider them literary equals. Or, as Philip Marchand put it, “someone who reads Tolstoy and doesn’t recognize the presence of a towering genius is deficient in taste, period.”

Marchand’s comment is held up for castigation by novelist André Alexis in an article titled “The Long Decline,” which appears in this month’s issue of The Walrus magazine. Alexis complains that “Marchand’s statement is about himself, his belief in War and Peace‘s greatness. He offers no defence of his opinion, believing that none is required. And so, we have come to the point where the mere fact of an opinion is more important than the basis for it.”* Alexis decontextualizes Marchand’s remark and forces it to stand for an entire critical methodology. He uses this as an example of what he elsewhere refers to as “the written equivalent of pointing and saying, ‘There, you see?'”

But Alexis is being disingenuous. The quip about Tolstoy comes from an essay entitled “Confessions of a Book Columnist.” A few pages on in his essay, Marchand extrapolates what he means by literary taste in an extended analysis of two passages from Canadian fiction:

Let us be more specific about the tastes of the writer before you who presumes to criticize literature. The following are two paragraphs from two recently published Canadian novels, both of which have received a great deal of praise. One paragraph I loved, the other I hated.

A. “The traffic began to stagger forward in five-yard increments. Ted’s breakfast moved around in him.”

B. “Her life with others no longer interests him. He wants only her stalking beauty, her theatre of expressions. He wants the minute and secret reflection between them, the depth of field minimal, their foreignness intimate like two pages of a closed book.”

Paragraph A is from Russell Smith’s How Insensitive, a satiric look at Toronto’s cultural life. Paragraph B is from Michael Ondaatje’s … The English Patient.

The two sentences from Russell Smith, which describe the progress of a badly hung-over hero in a taxi on Highway 401, contain not a single adjective, unless you count the word “five.” In the first sentence, the emphasis is on the verb “stagger” and the noun “increments,” both of which strike me as inspired choices. “Stagger,” for example, combines the suggestions of jerkiness and stupefaction – two qualities inseparable from anyone’s experience of rush hour traffic. “Increments” reminds the reader that the five yards are supposed to add up to something – to a journey, in this case, of several miles.

The last sentence of the Ondaatje paragraph contains five adjectives. You don’t have to be Ernest Hemingway to consider that rather a lot for a sentence of no great length. What is more to the point is the abstractness of the adjectives, their inability to focus vision. As they say in creative writing classes, this kind of writing is telling, not showing. Moreover, the figures of speech contained in the excerpt hardly stand up to scrutiny. Calling the relationship of pages in a closed book “intimate” has a kind of studied inappropriateness that many readers find vaguely foreign in flavour and therefore highly sophisticated, but it is tiresome, foreign-flavoured or not. “Stalking beauty” is another figure of speech that seems to resonate with terribly profound implications, like some of the bad metaphors in Shelley. It’s the kind of verbal embroidery that is called “beautiful prose” by people who like gobs of marmalade on their toast.

Say what you like about Marchand’s assessments here, they are the very antithesis of “pointing and saying, ‘There, you see?'” They are, instead, an explication of one critic’s reactions to a pair of texts based on a literary sensibility that has been shaped not by market forces, but by wide reading and careful comparisons of traditions, authors, and texts. They are assessments based on a refined and clearly delineated literary taste.

What separates Marchand from the hundreds of Internet bloggers chattering incessantly about their favourite books of the moment is his adherence to an aesthetic that is explicable and forged out of a reasonable and logical approach to literature based on certain principles and standards. Distilled, this is what Coleridge meant when he wrote:

The ultimate end of criticism is much more to establish the principles of writing, than to furnish rules how to pass judgement on what has been written by others; if indeed it were possible that the two could be separated. But if it be asked, by what principles the poet is to regulate his own style, if he do not adhere closely to the sort and order of words which he hears in the market, wake, high-road, or plough-field? I reply; by principles, the ignorance or neglect of which would convict him of being no poet, but a silly or presumptuous usurper of the name! By the principles of grammar, logic, psychology! In one word by such a knowledge of the facts, material and spiritual, that most appertain to his art, as, if it have been governed and applied by good sense, and rendered instinctive by habit, becomes the representative and reward of our past conscious reasonings, insights, and conclusions, and acquires the name of TASTE.

Critical taste, according to Coleridge, is forged out of an understanding that literary standards can and do exist: that it is possible to objectively assert that book X is better than book Y based on literary principles (“grammar, logic, psychology”) and “knowledge of the facts, material and spiritual, that most appertain to” the work of art under consideration.

Alexis argues that James Wood, perhaps the most widely recognized literary critic writing today, was in his early work “exemplary of the worst of criticism” because he dared to render judgment over the works he was considering. In his 2008 study, How Fiction Works, “Wood has begun to move away from judgment and toward the contemplation of ideas,” which Alexis sees as a victory for criticism.

What Alexis would appear to advocate is what Rebecca West derided in a 1914 essay titled “The Duty of Harsh Criticism”: critics who “combine the gentleness of early Christians with a promiscuous polytheism,” who “reject not even the most barbarous or most fatuous gods.” Stating that there was at the time “no criticism in England,” but “merely a chorus of weak cheers … a mild kindliness that neither heats to enthusiasm nor reverses to anger,” West called for the establishment of “a new and abusive school of criticism.” Her call to arms, made just under one century ago, is today echoed by Jeet Heer, who, in his own response to Alexis’s article, published on The Afterword blog, writes, “A strong argument could be made that Canadian reviewers are too forgiving of bad writing and our literary culture is corrupted less by rampant snark than by habitual back-scratching and tireless log-rolling.”

Indeed, Heer points out that Northrop Frye, who Alexis calls “a good practical critic” whose “respect for the literary work was … inspiring,” himself adhered to high literary standards in his criticism:

It’s worth remembering that Frye explicitly stated that he would never apply the same high standards he used to judge world literature to evaluating the fiction and poetry of Canada. Frye described himself as a “paternal critic” and believed that it was his job to nurture Canadian writers by describing and categorizing their work rather than evaluating its merit (or lack thereof). The task of evaluation, Frye once wrote, would only be “a huge debunking project, leaving Canadian literature a poor naked alouette plucked of every feather of decency and dignity.”

Frye certainly could not be considered deficient in taste. When Alexis argues that Canada could benefit from more critics of Frye’s calibre, he is right, although not for the reasons he espouses.

*Marchand did not mention War and Peace in his comment; that was Alexis’s inference. But, we’ll let that one go for the moment.

Miguel Syjuco explains his artistic process

May 20, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

Bear in mind, kids, this man is a trained professional. DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME.

Of lit salons and author readings

April 28, 2010 by · 4 Comments 

Last night at The Spoke Club, Open Book Toronto hosted the inaugural edition of the Toronto Literary Salon, in partnership with The Spoke and Thompson Hotels. Yesterday’s event featured a panel consisting of authors Russell Smith (Girl Crazy), Joey Comeau (One Bloody Thing After Another), and David Eddie (Damage Control). The panel was moderated by Nathan Whitlock (A Week of This).

Modelled on the French literary salons of the 17th and 18th centuries, Open Book’s new endeavour is meant to be a place where authors and readers can come together in a casual environment to converse, exchange ideas, and maybe even get into some friendly disagreements. From Open Book’s website:

Do what engaged and curious people have done for centuries and gather with writers for a salon. The point? To amuse each other, to be inspired by writing and culture, to expand one’s knowledge and opinions through conversation. Salons are where true dialogue (and yes, often feisty arguments) emerge.

There weren’t many feisty arguments to be had last night, in part, I suspect, because of the size of the group, which increased the intimidation factor. (The audience filled the room, spilling over into a little alcove at the back, which was separated by a wall, so the poor souls who found themselves sequestered there could listen to the proceedings, but could not see the panel.) Moreover, the event was more structured than it was perhaps intended to be, resembling more a typical reading and author Q&A than a free-form discussion between audience and panel. Things did loosen up toward the end, but time constraints cut the conversation short just as it appeared to be gearing up.

One reason the event felt so structured was that it kicked off with each author giving a short reading. (Apparently, neither the authors nor the moderator were aware that there was a reading component to the event prior to arriving on the scene.) As anyone who has ever attended a reading knows, the culture of author readings imposes a separation between the performer and the audience. It’s difficult to smoothly transition from that kind of format to a more open conversation among a large(ish) number of individuals.

There was some discussion among the panelists about whether they enjoyed giving/attending readings – Eddie was in favour of them, Smith was opposed (and did an hilarious, spot-on impersonation of the kind of droning, monotone voice that certain poets adopt when reading their work aloud). Yr. humble correspondent tends to side with Smith, finding the vast majority of author readings tedious in the extreme. There is also something frankly perverse about expecting authors – who are usually introverted individuals and who spend the bulk of their days alone in a room wrestling with the contents of their own heads – to get up on a stage in front of an audience and entertain. The panelists were in general agreement that a reading is a public performance, but it seems to me that an author’s performance exists on the page. Once the book is finished, the author’s job is done. It’s now the reader’s turn to engage with the text the author has created.

I say that I tend to side with Smith, because there are isolated instances in which an author has been so proficient at performing his or her work that I have actually found myself – almost against my will – enjoying the experience. One example of this is a David Foster Wallace reading I attended years ago at Harbourfront’s International Fesitval of Authors here in Toronto. Wallace read a section of Infinite Jest dealing with a couple of inept thieves who burgle the home of a French Canadian man with a head cold. When I read the passage myself, it seemed clever, but nothing special. However, when Wallace read it, providing the requisite pauses and emphases, it was eye-wateringly funny. Here is an instance in which an author’s interpretation of his own material actually transformed the material in my estimation, making it leap off the page where once it had just sat there, inert. That, however, is the exception rather than the rule. In most cases, authors (who may be incredibly engaging when speaking extemporaneously) lose all their charisma and appeal the minute they begin reciting from their work. Not for nothing do people in the know try to time their arrivals at book launches strategically so that they miss the readings but are still able to avail themselves of the open bar.

I look forward to future iterations of the Toronto Literary Salon (there are three more scheduled, one in early summer and the other two in the fall), and hope that they will de-emphasize the more structured component and encourage greater dialogue between authors and readers. The danger is that such a free-form discussion could descend into anarchy, or be dominated by one or two voices. However, the upside would be an enhanced engagement with authors off the page, and perhaps even a few of those feisty arguments that sound so intriguing.

A vast, dark, rich forest

April 27, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Just before she died, Gertrude Stein was heard to ask, “What is the answer?” As no answer came, she laughed and said, “In that case, what is the question?” Then she died. Stein understood that because our knowledge of the world is fragmentary, we believe the world to be fragmentary. We assume that the bits and pieces we encounter and collect (of experience, pleasure, sorrow, revelation) exist in splendid isolation like each of the motes in a cloud of stardust. We forget the all-encompassing cloud, we forget that in the beginning, there was a star. Don Quixote or Hamlet might be the testamentary works of Cervantes and Shakespeare, Picasso could have put away his brushes after Guernica and Rembrandt after The Night Watch, Mozart could have died happily after composing The Magic Flute and Verdi Falstaff, but we would be missing something. We would be missing the approximations, the tentative versions, the variations, the changes of tone and perspective, the circuitous itineraries, the circumventions, the dealings in the shadows, the rest of their creative universe. We would be missing the errors, the stillbirths, the censored snapshots, the trimmings, the lesser inspired creations. Since we are not immortal, we have to content ourselves with a sampling, and therefore the choice of testamentary works is fully justified. As long as we remember that under the pomp and circumstance there is a rustle and a stirring, a vast, dark, rich forest full of fallen or discarded leaves.

– “Final Answers,” Alberto Manguel

Yr. humble correspondent, dissected

April 6, 2010 by · 2 Comments 

I’ve never been much of a self-promoter. I’ve always felt a bit dirty crowing about my (admittedly rather dubious) achievements, and remain suspicious of Norman Mailer–type advertisements for myself. People often ask why I don’t write more personal posts on the blog and my answer is that the activity of blogging is narcissistic enough without my going into boring details about my personal life. (Anyone who really wants to hear about the petty aggravations of my day or what I had for breakfast is more than welcome to follow me on Twitter.)

Still, the good folks over at Open Book: Toronto asked me to fill out their “Proust Questionnaire,” which was a personality survey popular with the French society of Proust’s time. According to Open Book, “The idea behind the questionnaire is that the answers are supposed to reveal the respondent’s ‘true’ personality.”

Here’s a sample:

Who are your favourite prose authors?
Philip Roth, Flannery O’Connor, Mary Gaitskill, Haruki Murakami

Who are your favourite poets?
T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Anne Sexton, Ken Babstock

Who are your favourite heroes in fiction?
Hazel Motes, Raskolnikov, John Self (None of whom is particularly heroic, but what are you going to do?)

Who are your heroes in real life?
Steve Earle, Martin Luther King, my brother.

Who is your favourite painter?
Jackson Pollack.

Who is your favourite musician?
Tom Waits.

What is your favourite food?
Nothing beats a hot dog from a roadside cart.

What is your favourite drink?
Lagavulin 16-year-old single malt scotch.

For the rest, hop on over to Open Book. Once you’ve read the whole thing, you’ll know more about me than you ever wanted to. And I swear that all of my answers are 100% true. Trust me.

The curse of our time

February 22, 2010 by · 2 Comments 

Jonathan Jones, writing on the Guardian‘s art blog:

Real criticism is not about distinguishing good from bad; it is about distinguishing good from great. There’s plenty of terrible art around, but it usually finds its level in the end. The curse of our time, in the arts, is mediocrity and ordinariness: the quite good film that gets an Oscar, the OK artist who becomes a megastar. Truly remarkable art is rare and to see it when it comes, to fight for it, to hold it up as an example for the rest – that is the critic’s true task.

Couldn’t have said it better.

The new mixologists

February 17, 2010 by · 13 Comments 

You may not have heard of Helene Hegemann, but the 17-year-old German writer is at the centre of a brewing storm around the subjects of copyright and the nature of authorship in the Internet age. Hegemann is the author of a book titled Axolotl Roadkill, which has become a bestseller in her native country and was recently nominated for the fiction prize at the Leipzig Book Fair. What makes this book noteworthy is that it apparently contains passages – including one that allegedly runs an entire page – that have been lifted from the work of another writer, a blogger who goes by the online nom de plume Airen.

Hegemann, a child of the Internet age, does not consider what she has done plagiarism; she prefers to call it “mixing.” An article in The New York Times quotes the German teenager as saying that “Berlin is here to mix with everything.” Which sounds very DIY and cutting-edge, until you realize that Hegemann lifted that line from Arien’s blog. Hegemann claims to represent a new generation with new ideas about proprietorship vis à vis intellectual property. Essentially, for Hegemann (and, by extension everyone in her demographic cohort), in the Internet age, everything is up for grabs. “There’s no such thing as originality anyway,” Hegemann says, “only authenticity.” (How one can claim “authenticity” if one’s work is largely the creation of another is a mystery to me, but we’ll let that go for the moment.)

The current farrago puts yr. humble correspondent in mind of two other famous cases of “borrowing” material. In the first, Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan was roundly excoriated when it became apparent that her 2006 novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life contained passages that were lifted verbatim from two novels by Meg McCafferty. The second case, however, turned out rather differently. In that case, not only was the “borrower” not vilified, he went on to win the 2002 Booker Prize. When some perceptive readers noticed that Yann Martel’s novel The Life of Pi bore a suspicious similarity to a lesser-known 1981 novel called Max and the Cats, by Brazilian author Moacyr Scilar, Martel freely acknowledged the debt. At the time, Mobylives quoted Martel:

“This is how it happened,” he writes in an e–mail interview with Orin Judd at “Ten years ago. Review in New York Times Book Review by John Updike of a Brazilian novel by one Moacyr Scliar … Not a good review. Did nothing to Updike. But premise sizzled in my mind. I thought ‘Man, I could do something with that.'”

Martel went so far as to say that Scilar provided the “spark of life” for Pi, and told the Associated Press, “I don’t feel I’ve done something dishonest.”

That being the case, one might imagine that Martel would have a certain sympathy for Hegemann. But if Axolotl Roadkill represents the thin edge of the wedge, what can we expect the future of books to look like in a world where everything from current releases to classics in the public domain is available for remix, refashioning, and reuse? We’ve already seen a glut of Jane Austen-inspired “mash-ups,” thanks to last year’s unlikely Quirk Classics bestseller Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; can we now expect that similar revisions (or, more properly, “re-visionings”) of canonical works will be forced upon us by writers with a clever idea and access to cut-and-paste computer software? For modern works, will copyright have any practical value at all?

In an interview with Hugh Maguire for Open Book: Toronto, Sean Cranbury envisions a “ridiculously dystopic” future in which source texts become collages at the hands of Internet users employing the digital equivalent of scissors and a glue stick:

People are going take text that they like or want to use for a specific purpose from wherever they can find it, and they are going to manipulate it to whatever ends they desire. Then they’re going to slap it into some kind of digital container and probably cross-pollinate the work with video, stills, music, scans of random junk found lying around and then they are going to share it. That content will then be reconstituted by others who have picked it up somewhere in the digital aether.

In this new world, Cranbury posits, “Digital content will have a universal currency rate of 0. It will simply be given away, shared, remixed and reconstituted, and the only way to determine anything like our common sense of ‘worth’ will be by its buoyancy and popularity on the P2P networks.”

In his book The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture, Andrew Keen quotes cyberpunk author William Gibson as saying that the words “appropriation” and “borrowing” are in fact outmoded terms that don’t mean anything to the participatory culture of the Internet. “The record,” Gibson says, “not the remix, is the anomaly today. The remix is the very nature of the digital.” To which it is tempting to point out that without the record, there is nothing to remix in the first place (hence the term remix …), but again, we’ll let that one go for now.

Keen goes on to write:

A survey published in Education Week found that 54 percent of students admitted to plagiarizing from the Internet. And who is to know if the other 46 percent are telling the truth? Copyright and authorship begin to lose all meaning to those posting their mash-ups and remixings on the Web. They are, as Professor Sally Brown at Leeds Metropolitan University notes, “Postmodern, eclectic, Google-generationists, Wikipediasts, who don’t necessarily recognize the concepts of authorships/ownerships.”

Given Hegemann’s comment that there is no such thing as originality, it may be that the word “necessarily” in Professor Brown’s assessment is de trop. What makes me nervous, however, is not that the generation coming of age with the Internet has no conception of the importance of authorship. What makes me nervous is that they do recognize this – they just don’t care.

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